Design Principles for Engaged Workplaces

Print Share on LinkedIn More

In her article, Pat McLagan described a shift in the way workplaces are organized, resulting in quantum leaps of 35 to 40 percent[1] in the quantity and quality of work produced and the energy and commitment of the people engaged in it. I believe that this is a very profound shift occurring at the level of design principles. Design principles are the most fundamental and basic values, beliefs, assumptions, or conditions that underlie our thinking and behavior as we try to figure out how to get the work done and coordinate or manage the people doing the work. The shift I describe in this article is from Autocratic-Bureaucratic design principles to Collaborative-Democratic design principles.

As you can see from the other articles in this issue, workers are generally drawn to the collaborative-democratic principles of organization, but most organizations are still in an early learning mode on how to operate effectively around these principles. Why is that? And more importantly, what can you concretely do, as a leader in your agency, to move your work designs along?

I will challenge you, in this article, to consider making a shift in your thinking and language around people and work from the term human resources to the term people practices. I contend that the term human resources is a leftover from the industrial age, implying that workers are a resource to be mined for the best interest of the corporation. It is a one-way expression. I use the term people practices to identify the two-way process by which we enable people to create, collaborate, and be accountable for producing work so that the organization can generate its mission powerfully, integrate its resources efficiently, and deliver valued services to its clients effectively. This shift to new design principles requires us first to develop a new network of working assumptions, a task that must itself be done collaboratively, creatively and with a great deal of attention to mission and accountability to stakeholders.

My experience suggests there are three critical steps you must take. Each takes time, energy and commitment. Each requires you to have clear intention and purpose, simple tools for execution, and thorough and powerful conversations with your co-workers.

Your first step toward establishing a more collaborative-democratic workplace is to fully explore and establish a common understanding of your present state (and the design principles in play presently) and to contrast this against a desired state based upon collaborative-democratic principles.

To take this step you must first ask what the design principles are that currently underpin your practices with the people you employ. Some design principles in your organization will be conscious, explicit, openly espoused and regularly talked about. Other design principles are virtually unconscious, so deeply embedded in your way of doing things, and so taken for granted that you never question them or make them explicit in your day-to-day conversations. However, they also determine and control the experiences you and your entire staff have around what it is like to work there. For instance, take the issue of staff salaries. In many organizations there is a combination of influences at work, some driven by explicit policy and some driven by more broadly held cultural assumptions. We need to begin to distinguish between these in order to make conscious choices.

Our language is a powerful driver of and frame for our unconscious assumptions and the policies and actions that flow from them. For example, not so long ago in the corporate sector we used to call specialist work around people “industrial relations” or “labor relations” work. As we grew enlightened about the social needs of human beings, we began to call it “employee relations” or “personnel” work. Today we assert that people are “our most important assets,” and we call it “human resources” work.

In our language about the people of our organizations we reveal deep, and nearly unconscious, images of those who work with us. The metaphors we use may characterize people either as cogs or parts of a complex machine, or as opposing forces to be managed and “related to,” or as passive resources, like minerals, to be mined, controlled and exploited by the organization. These industrial age metaphors comprise the essence of autocratic-bureaucratic design principles.

Peter Block, author of The Empowered Manager and Stewardship, urges us to examine and discard this kind of language if we want to create new, collaborative workplaces. “You must create a frame of engagement,” he contends, “inviting people into a new conversation about their freedom to choose, participate and connect. Human resource systems and practices should be about opportunities for self-governance.”

A partnership model such as the one proposed by Block would seem more congruent with our values and intentions, but I find most nonprofit leaders still turn to an industrial model as the basis for setting up their human resource systems. It’s time for us to move the other way. We know something about creating deeply purposeful, mission-oriented organizations! So how do you break the grip of this way of thinking? There are four things to do in this first step.

First, recognize what policies and practices in your current system are driven by autocratic-bureaucratic as opposed to collaborative-democratic design principles. The Table at the end is a tool that provides you with ten criteria to use in reflecting upon, assessing and diagnosing the current state of your own practices.

Second, envision the possibility and value of a collaborative-democratic workplace. Decide for yourself that you are willing to take a stand for it even if you don’t know how to bring it about. People generally mistrust leaders who say they want to create such a workplace, particularly when they experience HR practices that violate espoused commitments to greater participation, choice and self-governance.

Third, declare your vision of what is possible and explore it with others inside of and outside of the organization. You will then immediately confront all of your collective doubts and fears about being able to bring it about.

Fourth, begin the dialogue. Some leaders prefer to start this dialogue initially with a smaller group of people, such as the leadership team or selected confidants, so that they can wrestle openly with their own doubts and concerns. Others like to conduct retreats or sessions with the entire staff at once, where they collectively engage their history, where they are, and where they want to go as an organization (sometimes using guides such as Weisbord and Janoff’s Future Search). What is truly important is that you concretely begin the shift around your practices using your own language, stories and examples.

I cannot overemphasize the degree to which your interventions will be driven by how you think and talk about people and their work. We all collect information continuously; in our everyday engagements we watch people talk and do things. This is the data of everyday life. But on top of that data we layer other material. In our individual thinking and in conversations with others, we reach conclusions about work quality, personal motivation and capability, relationships, organizational conditions, and so on. These conclusions are what we use to drive selection, promotions, rewards, work design, and assignments.

Have you ever wondered how accurate or rigorous these thought and conversational processes really are? There is enormous potential for error here because our language is so imprecise, and–more importantly–because the design principles of the autocratic-bureaucratic world often bias our conversations in ways that lead to faulty conclusions. (For more on this, readers might want to look at Chris Argyris’s work on the ladder of inference and organizational defensive routines.[2])

It is remarkable how much you will find out about what is underneath work practices by having basic and rigorous conversations about what you do, how you do things and why you do them like you do. This raises questions of accountability front and center–accountability to constituents, to workmates and to other stakeholders. It is useful for every person and group in your organization to focus on five key aspects of people and work:

  1. What is the shared context of your work? This includes things such as external trends and shifts; client needs and wants; organizational mission; plans, goals, and strategies; guiding principles of the culture; and specific idiosyncrasies of a particular job design.
  2. Who are your customers? Who receives your work directly? What are their concerns and needs? What do they truly care about? How do they think about you?
  3. What are the specific work outputs you deliver to customers? Concretely, what do you promise to deliver? What do people get from you as a result of your work? What are the quality standards of goodness, as defined by the customer who receives them?
  4. What are the competencies it takes to produce high quality results? What do you need to know, be able to do, or be committed to? How do you know when someone has those competencies?
  5. Finally, what are the best measures for evaluating the outcomes of your work? How do you assess the total contribution of a job or a larger body of work? How do you concretely, fairly, and comprehensively measure success?

The answers to these questions are the foundation of all of your people practices. Thus, you can use them to start anywhere. Many organizations like to start with these questions around the issue of individual accountability, having people profile their individual work using the above five questions. Then people share their analyses with work group members for clarification and consistency. This can be followed by individual coaching and support on needs for learning, development and performance improvement, or by the creation of more generic profiles of work done by more than one person.

Other times, people start by profiling the work and people requirements of an entire team, looking at how the team is assigning accountability, followed by an assessment of the team capabilities, processes and tools for producing their accountabilities. Perhaps the most ambitious level is to profile the work and people of an entire organization all at once, together, in one session in which you literally catalogue the desired end results (outcomes), what each person must produce to make the end results occur (outputs), and competencies needed to produce both. This can give everyone a view of how their work connects to everyone else, and how the whole mission and purpose is created from the contributions of many. This approach can also help you to assess your real capacity for carrying out the work of your organization, the core competencies required, and how to start building sustainable internal capacity.

So, it does not matter where you start. What does matter is that you carefully examine your words, your language, and your conversations about people and work. And then use that diagnosis to create common ground, shared interpretations, and clear targets for making decisions about people and work.

Research and practice has shown that to achieve real progress in crossing from autocratic-bureaucratic to collaborative-democratic practices, you must work at making deep, systemic change. This requires mirroring the desired product in the process. You do not get the quantum leaps I referred to earlier by changing your performance appraisal form or by teaching people to do better selection interviews. There are some simple ways to spark the change process through structured conversations. What follows are four fundamental questions you must address if you want to create systemic changes in your people practices. These questions are:

1. What must you deliver to all of the stakeholders of your organization and what are the critical competencies it takes to produce high quality and true value?

2. What do you need to produce in the future, and what new competencies will that require?

3. What applications and practices do you need to ensure that your answers to questions one and two are implemented every day in every setting of the organization?

4. How do you create change in such a way that the change process itself embodies the principles of the collaborative-democratic world? (Read Peter Block’s work on the distinction between change as “installation” versus “engagement” in his new edition of Flawless Consulting for a provocative view of change management different from that currently practiced by most change consultants, leaders, and change agents.)

One approach to this step that I have found useful is to create small teams of people (four to six maximum) drawn from every level and group in the organization. Charge these teams with producing a Blueprint for Action on one of your key systems, described below. This blueprint is a one-page “picture” that summarizes the following:

* What is our current state around this system of people practices? Where are we on the ten criteria? What do people experience when they are involved with the system?
* What is the desired future state? What are we truly committed to as an alternative?
* Who are the stakeholders in this change? What are their points of view, positions, power and predictability? What do we do to enroll them?
* What are our measures of success? How will we know we are making progress? And
* What are the possible actions to take and the obstacles we may confront? Once organized, these become the heart of our action plan going forward.

Membership. How do people become members (including staff)? Where do we find them? How do we select them? How do we assimilate them when they come on board? How do we keep people focused on what it means to be a member here (i.e., our vision, mission and values)?

Accountability. How do we divide up the work? Who makes what decisions? How do we distribute power here? How do we best match individual capabilities with the demands of the work?

Assessment. How do we track the progress of individuals, teams and organizations? How do we assess how well we serve our clients? How do we and how should we measure people and work?

Learning. How do we connect people so that they can generate and share important learning? How do we help people acquire the competence needed today? How do we build our capacity for the future?

Rewards. How do we acknowledge and reward the contribution of people to the mission and work? How do we decide how much people can–and should–be paid? How do we recognize the credentials of people?

Inside of each of your people practice systems are various applications you have already built or need to build. For example in the Membership System you have an application called the “selection process” or “how we do hiring.” You have an application called “orientation,” or “new hire training.” The teams need to look at the purpose and process of each application: why you do it and what steps happen. Then they must look at the tools involved: the documents and forms used. Finally, have them look at the conversations that occur, how well they occur, and how well words and language are used to create quality decisions.

Ask that the teams use the ten criteria to look critically at the current state of the system to assess whether the system is autocratic-bureaucratic or collaborative-democratic. Ask them to describe how the system might look in a desirable future state.

Add any other criteria that their system solutions must adhere to–such as time, resource or budget restrictions. Have them assess how the desired future state of this system would interact with the other systems so that they are integrated. Have them use the common language for people and work you have developed. Have them look critically at how the new system would support and drive the vision, mission and guiding principles of your organization.

Here are some examples of organizations that changed their practices. One team decided to alter their selection process so that all of the decision-making about the new hire would be transparent and the new hire would be “invited to be a partner” in the decision-making process. They sent the work profile to candidates in advance of an interview and asked them to do a self-rating on the outputs and competencies needed. The interview team each did ratings and then discussed their ratings with the candidates, asking them to contribute to the decision-making process. It was challenging, exhausting, and very powerful both for candidates and the organization in creating an example of commitment to openness, honesty and directness from the very beginning of their relationship with the organization.

Another organization is changing the way it conducts promotions to senior leadership and performance reviews within the senior leadership team. Now these procedures are done as a group, in open forum, with people providing each other direct feedback on outputs and competencies. Other organizations are experimenting with a performance review process that is basically self-directed and self-managed by the individual involved. The individuals collect the data from customers on their outputs and competencies, summarize the data, and review it with their supervisor.

Some organizations are assessing more rigorously how they reward people. The themes there seem to center on focusing base compensation on outputs produced, basing variable compensation on key metrics that target special objectives for a time period, and basing awards, recognitions and certifications on competencies demonstrated to key stakeholders of your work.

Many organizations also use these tools and conversations to help people focus on their own learning and development. They have individuals build a work profile of their current work and of their future work. Based on the competencies needed, each individual builds a learning plan and coaching relationships to help them accelerate their progress and monitor plans and actions.

In conclusion, the path toward the collaborative-democratic workplace is not an easy one, yet the potential positive outcomes are enormous. There are many barriers to your success, not the least of which will be your reluctance to confronting your own practice as a leader and your own resistance to learning. You may have noticed this in how you reacted to the examples above. Some of you may be saying, “Well, that’s crazy. You can’t do that in my organization.” Or, “That would never happen here.” You will have to challenge your own assumptions about power–who has it, why they have it, and how they use it. You will challenge your assumptions about relationship and connection. You will find that connectedness is the key to learning, that all of your work shows up in conversation, and that people are not necessarily good at producing conversations for learning. You will have to look deeply at your assumptions about how to manage and control work. But you can create an extraordinary opportunity for your staff and yourself to have the life at work that we all truly want.

Ten Opposing Design Principles for People Practices

1. Language used to describe work is primarily focused on the specific function being performed by the individual or the jargon of various work specializations. 1. There is a common language to describe people and work across all work applications and groups. People talk about the implications of their language for understanding.
2. Upper levels maintain secrecy over and active control of information and decisions about people and work. 2. There is broad involvement in decision-making at all levels and open access to information needed–not only in designing individual work but in improving the effectiveness of work groups and the organization as a whole.
3. People are treated as objects of the practice who need to be managed and controlled. 3. People are treated as active co-creators of the practice who are committed to effectiveness.
4. Work and people processes are boss-referenced–everyone is focused on keeping the next level up informed and in control. 4. Work and people processes are constituent-referenced–everyone is focused on real outcomes for constituents.
5. Formal people practices are not user-friendly. They are document and tool-driven, and very paper-intensive–that is, focused on keeping records of things. 5. Formal people practices are user-friendly. They are conversation and commitment-driven and very “promise”-intensive–focused on our promises to each other and other stakeholders.
6. People tend to judge each other based upon deficiencies, “fuzzy standards,” maintaining control, and real or implied threats. 6. People tend to judge each other based upon an appreciation of strengths, shared and observable quality standards, and promotion of learning.
7. Descriptions of work and people are often distant from reality of the work, confusing, complicated, often built by technical experts and focused on activities, tasks and knowledge. 7. Descriptions of work and people are clear, stated in accessible language, and are focused on end results of work and the competencies people need to be successful.
8. Assessments are usually based upon coercively or unilaterally developed goals, focused only on so-called “objective” measures, and done by one person higher in the organization. 8. Assessments are based upon mutually defined goals drawn from a rigorous and frank dialogue, and a search for consensus among multiple observers and the person being assessed.
9. People practices should be standardized across all groups, allow for no variation, and should be policed by specialists for compliance. 9. People practices should vary as needed, be continuously redesigned to support mission and strategy, and monitored by users for usefulness.
10. People practices are developed to solve a specific problem, often unconnected to a larger plan or vision or core set of values. 10. Every people practice area is a full microcosm of overall organizational purpose and values.


1. The following three books together provide a useful overview of the research done over the last 15 years on the extraordinary bottom-line impact of high-quality collaborative-democratic design principles for human resource systems:

Becker, Brian E., Dave Ulrich and Mark Huselid. 2001. The HR ScoreCard: Linking People, Strategy and Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, March.

Kotter, John and James Heskett. 1992. Corporate Culture and Performance. New York, NY: The Free Press, Inc.

Kravetz, Dennis. 1988. The Human Resources Revolution: Implementing Progressive Management Practices for Bottom Line Success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2. See Argyris, Chris. 1990. Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, pp. 88-89.


Block, Peter. 1987. The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

——. 1993. Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self Interest. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

——. 2000. Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, Second Ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Weisbord, Marvin and Sandra Janoff. 1995. Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Steve Williamson has worked as both a consultant and a head of HR for nearly 30 years. He is the founder of The New World Network, a network of senior practitioners devoted to developing and implementing the tools and conversations of the collaborative-democratic world of work. He is a co-author of SYMLOG, an internationally used methodology for assessing teams and organizations, and has authored many other tools and assessments, including The Compleat Consultant and the HIPLAY system for team development. He has worked with numerous corporate and third sector organizations, and can be reached at stevwill@earthlink.net.